Asbury vs. The First Missionaries from Wesley

Richard Boardman
Richard Boardman

We saw last time how the first two missionary preachers sent from John Wesley in England arrived in October, 1769. Richard Boardman, 31 years old, and Joseph Pilmore, 30 years old, were in every sense of the word, missionaries. Pilmore initially set his ministry sights on Philadephia, where he labored with Captain Thomas Webb, of whom he said, “His preaching, though incorrect and irregular, is attended with wonderful prayer.” He also traveled south in 1772. His journal is full of frustrated remarks on the limitations which attended his relations with Boardman, who, after an unsuccessful foray into New England, preferred to settle in New York.

Joseph Pilmore
Joseph Pilmore

Pilmore, even less than Boardman, was no friend of endless itineration. He frankly favored city life with its conveniences and more ample opportunities to preach to easily assembled groups. He was an intelligent and relatively cultured man who appreciated the beauty of nature and some of the finer things in life. He delighted at the fireflies in the evening “darting through the air, and sparkling with their little lights as if they would shew forth the praise of him.”

Two years after the arrival of Boardman and Pilmore, in 1771, John Wesley sent two more missionaries. One was Richard Wright, of whom almost nothing is known. The other was a then-only-26 year-old, Francis Asbury, who went on to become the father of American Methodism.

Thomas Rankin
Thomas Rankin

Thomas Rankin had arrived in 1773 along with George Shadford. The Scottish Rankin was a ripe old thirty-five, and as the senior man, was appointed by Wesley to be the “general assistant” for American Methodism. Asbury, at this point, had to play second fiddle to the strictest disciplinarian this side of the Atlantic. Asbury’s judgment of Rankin would hit the bull’s eye: “He will not be admired as a preacher. But as a disciplinarian he will fill his place.” These two strong-minded leaders would share a mutual, if grudging, respect for each other, but each was also critical of the other. Both Rankin and Asbury were men of authority who naturally assumed the reins of leadership. Neither, however, had any success in whipping ole Robert Strawbridge into line (remember, he was the layman who was engaging in sacramental ministry, a big ‘no-no’ even to this day).

Thomas Rankin had been tasked by Mr. Wesley with restoring good Methodist order, i.e., good discipline. That meant getting the class meetings in order. Rankin convened the first Annual Conference in America in Philadelphia in 1773. (Note the Philadelphia connections to the gathering political storm.) Rankin judged some adherents to be “not closely united to us” and “our discipline … not properly attended to, except at Philadelphia and New York; and even in those places it was on the decline.”

Rankin was a man who followed orders. He demanded acceptance of Wesley’s authority, adherence to his doctrines and discipline, suspension of sacraments (do you hear that, Robert Strawbridge???), conformity with the church, guarding of love feasts, honoring of rules about publishing, and disfellowshiping of deviants. That’s right, Methodists disfellowshiped deviants.

The Conference Minutes show that Robert Strawbridge – the lay preacher who helped establish one of the first Methodist class meetings in Maryland but who insisted on serving the Sacraments himself – WAS given an appointment in 1773. He was appointed again in 1775. But that was the last time. He would not abide the new discipline. So he was not appointed again.

Alas, in 1778, Rankin was constrained to return to England. In fact, by the end of the American Revolutionary War, and “in the strange providence of God” (Wesley) America had gained her independence of England, ALL the missionaries were gone … all, that is, except Francis Asbury. Both Pilmore and Boardman had returned to England in 1774, the others later. But all were gone by war’s end. Pilmore would return to America later to become a clergyman of the Protestant Episcopal Church. He never lost his Methodist orientation, however.

From the start, the sole remaining English missionary, Francis Asbury, unlike the other Wesleyan missionaries, had exhibited a remarkable capacity to understand the North American situation, to connect with its peoples, to speak in colloquial language, and to adapt as the unfolding political crisis brought revolution. He employed contextually applicable terms, such as power and liberty, words with multiple meanings, speaking of the divine agency at work.

Unlike Pilmore and Boardman, Asbury was a big proponent of itineration. He opposed preachers “settling in” and becoming simply popular with their people. He feared this would soften the proclamation of the sometimes hard-edged truths of the gospel. That said, the early Methodism in the time of Asbury was biracial, highly emotional and expressive, a family-based community of love. It would engage the religious sensibilities of women. It would empower as leaders young men. It would unite male and female, rich and poor, black and white into one people through its structures of class meeting, society, and circuit. Very much a man who understood his time, under Francis Asbury, American liberty and Methodist order belonged together.

Next time we’ll look at the first quarterly conference convened by Francis Asbury in December, 1772. We look at some of the issues that conference dealt with as war approached, a war that would drive Francis Asbury underground.

(Sources: “The Story of American Methodism,” by Frederick A. Norwood; “American Methodism: A Compact History,” by Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt)

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